Rise Of The African Megacities: What Will It Take To Make Them Smart?

By Kurt Davis Jr. AFKI Original Published: February 20, 2017, 1:00 am
Boulevard du 30 juin, Kinshasa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sub-Saharan Africa is urbanizing at precipitous pace….by 2025, more than 70 percent of the continent’s population is projected to be living in cities.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanization skyrocketed from 15 percent in 1960 to approximately 40 percent in 2016, which is higher than South Asia. The number of urban Africans almost doubled between 1995 and 2015 and is expected to nearly double again by 2035.

The rapid growth is driving the African phenomenon of the megacity — an urban area with a population of at least 10 million residents. Kinshasa and Lagos epitomize these African megacities with various economic benefits–economies of scale, innovation, clusters of skilled labor, and higher incomes.

At the same time, these megacities (as well as mid-sized cities) are struggling to combat challenges exacerbated in the midst of the population growth, like inadequate physical infrastructure, low-quality social services, congested slums, and high unemployment. New problems are also created with the urban boom, including uncontrollable traffic problems, illegal land grabs, and urban sprawl.

But, while these stories are new to Africa, they are not necessarily a new global phenomenon. Paris, New York and London are great examples of the good and bad of megacities. Yet, it is hard to imagine every city naturally becoming a replica of those economic hubs. Only 40 percent of the African urban population has access to adequate sanitation facilities and quality social services. More than 50 percent of the African urban population lives in slums. Although the young population is a positive in the African growth story, it also underscores the growing challenge in unemployment. Youth unemployment – between 40 percent and 50 percent in South Africa – is a concern for African cities.

Taking those truths and growth seriously requires political leaders to create more strategic plans and structuring for developing “smart cities.”

Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and Luanda are expected to reach the mega category by 2030.

The smart African city

Urban planners are excited to create the smart African city with no shortage of opinion on the best tactics. But, as experts try to create the new Dubai or Amsterdam, they are faced with the reality of tight governmental budgets and limited public capacity. In the middle of competing interests—grand plans and limited funds—it is necessary to imagine more innovative solutions.

Delivering infrastructure and social services

The transport infrastructure suffocates life in many African cities, undercutting mobility and efficiency. In Addis Ababa, where car ownership does not match other major African cities, traffic can stall for hours from downtown to residential areas. In Nairobi, it can take four hours to drive to the airport in the afternoon compared to 30 minutes at 2 a.m. on the same route. In Lagos, traffic slugs along with no relief in sight. In some cities, officials are using traffic cameras to asses and later facilitate traffic flows. Entrepreneurs in Lagos and Nairobi promote using mobile services to translate the results and guide drivers as a less expensive alternative to road construction. Still some more targeted road construction is required.

The Rwandan Droneport Project proposes uses drones to deliver medical supplies and other necessary materials by drone to remote locations. Drones help medical doctors pole-vault mountains, lakes and other topographic challenges without the cost of large infrastructure projects. Financing for such construction projects is far off in the current economic environment for many African cities.

Agricultural innovation

Agriculture accounts for a significant portion of the labor force in most African countries. Making farming more efficient and productive begins with technology. Mobile applications are an obvious component in the process. Applications such as iCow can help farmers monitor milking schedules, immunization dates and nutrition. Similar applications are being developed to assist with farming schedules for specific crops with tips for seeding, watering and other necessary procedures.

Growth equity and SMEs

Growth equity and entrepreneurship are necessary to change the landscape in the employment space. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) require access to bank capital and private investor capital such as venture capital and growth capital. The current private equity space generally targets companies that can digest $50 million-plus in capital which leaves many SME entrepreneurs on the outside. Entrepreneurs and their subsequent success remain the central vehicles to changing the outlook for local communities.

Smart grids and transmission

A key to slowing the growth of megacities rests with officials’ abilities to ensure the delivery of energy and other related resources, such as water to smaller cities. Smart grids and transmission are central to this process. The development of substations in the transmission system could help to reduce energy loss and assist distribution systems. Energy experts suggest that smart sensors and flexible/intelligent switches reduce outages and boost the system’s ability and speed to restore power.

Mini-grids are necessary to aiding remote locations on the continent. Success stories are found in East Africa, particularly Rwanda, but it cannot be limited to that region. Greater opportunity for such grids exist in West Africa and are vital to the growth of manufacturing and schools. It also may help officials better disperse demand throughout African countries with many Africans able to function and live in medium-sized cities with same access to resources and services available in megacities.

Smart requires participation from leaders and citizens

High tech startups and globally connected entrepreneurs will create the social and political infrastructure of African business. An efficient energy system, growing broadband connection and the mobile phone will underscore the physical infrastructure of the African smart city. But, while getting smarter and using technology are the theme, it may also be important to remember that smart cities, smart technology, and smart grids….smart everything requires officials and citizens being smarter.

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